Recently the Obama Administration announced an “investment” of 8 billion dollars in Hi-Speed passenger rail.
A few months before, Warren Buffett announced his investment of 26 billion bucks in Class 1 Intermodal Freight Rail. (Burlington).
I wonder which one will be the best investment? Both? Neither?
To be clear I am a railroad advocate. I believe this country should do more to enhance the viability of freight rail as opposed to long haul over-the-road trucking. Various studies I have seen show that, from an energy standpoint, rail uses about 1/4 as much fuel per ton as over the road trucks. (Mr. Buffett appears to agree).
As well, historically, the infrastructure (rails & bridges) of railroads has been paid for by private companies. In contrast, the cost of the infrastructure for trucking (roads, bridges), while partially offset by taxes on the trucks, is none the less borne by government and public funds.
But, as I said, that is Class 1 Freight rail. I do not believe that High Speed Passenger rail has any immediate future in this country beyond the few places where it is already. And, even many of those routes have to be heavily subsidized to exist. We are a car-borne society. Americans do not, as a general rule, want to take the train. Certainly not city to city. They like to take their cars with them. If they are traveling farther than a reasonable car journey, we have one of the largest and most efficient (that term is relative) air travel systems on the planet. And, once you get to the distant airport, there is a familiar car waiting for you.
But, back to the freight train...
There is certainly much more to the economics of freight than fuel and infrastructure. Logistics, especially for railroads, is a very large concern, and they can have significant effects on costs. I am far from knowledgeable about the logistics infrastructure, nor am I qualified to discuss it. My primary concern, agenda, or perspective, is the best use of our fossil fuels.
While it is old (1996), very long and boring, here is an extensive study on the costs of various shipping methods by the Transportation Research Board – did I mention boring? This reports focuses on the cost to society (IE Infrastructure) of various methods of shipping. However some very useful comparisons can be found about the entire cost associated with the shipping methods. Again, although the study is old, the comparisons, and conclusions, are still very valid.